Sermon for 12/29/19 Matthew 2:13-23

There’s a phrase (or saying) that’s become popular the last few years that I think fits with this reading quite well. The phrase is “well, that escalated quickly.” Sometimes it’s used sarcastically. Sometimes it’s used when the situation didn’t really escalate at all. Sometimes it’s just used when someone is being dramatic. However, with this reading, well, this is a situation that escalated quickly. We were just gathered less than a week ago singing by candlelight about a holy infant so tender and mild. Well, Herod has received news of this boy, this Messiah, the Lord. See, we don’t hear that part of the story today. Herod heard the wise men refer to Jesus as the king of the Jews. His first reaction? He was frightened. And out of his fear he reacted. No one was to be king but him. No one was to rule but him. He wanted to know where Jesus was and it was up to the wise men to tell him. But, when the wise men realized that Herod’s intentions weren’t what they seemed, they did not return to Bethlehem. Herod was furious. To make sure that no one would be king but him, he demanded that every baby boy under the age of 2 be killed. Well, that escalated quickly. 

You don’t hear this story in your kids picture books in the telling of the Christmas story. There is only one Christmas carol I know of that speaks of this passage. You probably won’t find a depiction of this passage on the walls of a nursery anytime soon. It’s violent, it’s disturbing, and it’s another reminder of what happens when any of us fall to the power of sin: we become what we hate, the worst versions of ourselves. There’s a lot of uncertainty in this passage; a lot of relying on dreams. And of course, so much travel. Jesus was born into uncertainty and quickly became a refugee seeking only to be safe from a mad man who wished him dead. Scholars wonder if the slaughter of the innocents (as this passage is often called) actually happened. It is only spoken of in the book of Matthew. Even if Herod didn’t actually demand this horrible atrocity to take place, he had the ability to command and carry out such things. This was a man who “maintained a private security force and built fortresses [in many locations] so that he would never be far from a defensible refuge. He killed descendants of the Hasmoneans so he would have no rival. When he suspected intrigue in his own family, he killed his wife Mariamne and one of his own sons. Before he died he commanded that at his death political prisoners should be killed so that there would be mourning throughout the land” (Feasting on the Word, Culpepper 167). So did he do it? We don’t know. But we do know he was capable of escalating things quickly. 

Herod was good at creating chaos and uncertainty. He wanted his people to question everything and follow only him. This world ruler was not about to stand very long for something new. Herod was invested in keeping the status quo because the status quo benefitted him quite well. And for Herod, the status quo didn’t involve a baby Messiah. In the midst of chaos and confusion, God provided a lot of protection. “God demonstrates God’s providential care in uncertain times” (Feasting on the Word, Thomas 166). Think about it: God sent an angel to Joseph in a dream; the Holy family took a very dangerous trip through the desert (as they fled to Egypt) traveling a lot by night (which was very dangerous) and weren’t hurt or harassed; we don’t hear this today, but the wise men were warned by an angel in a dream not to return to Herod; another angel appeared to Joseph after Herod died letting them know it was safe to return to Israel; finally in one final dream, God redirects the Holy family to Galilee. God provides protection in uncertain times. 

This is where I find the good news in this terrible text. Let’s be honest, it’s hard to find any piece of good news in a reading like this. But, the fact that God provides protection and guidance in uncertain times is good news for me. I don’t know if that sounds like good news for you, my beloved, but it is good news for me. I dare to hope, to dream, to even believe that if God can protect our Lord and Messiah from hurt, harm, danger, evil, and the most horrid people then maybe, just maybe, God can protect me. Just to be clear: faith in God does not, cannot, and will not preclude us from uncertain times, I think we all know that. But hope, for me, comes in knowing that God will protect and provide. God may not protect and provide in the ways we want (or even the ways we expect) but God will provide and protect always in the ways that we need. 

God came into this world through a baby; an inbreaking of love that often sends us out to places that look like “Egypt.” These are places that may seem foreign to us, but will offer us the most protection and the places where God will meet us. Herod desire to slaughter innocent children should make us angry. We cannot become complicit in systems that would allow this to happen again and again. Where might God be sending us to share the news of this baby born to change the world? And if we’re being sent, don’t you know that God will protect us? If we’re being sent, don’t you know that God will provide? Herod honestly wasn’t the most evil person around. He built roads and infrastructure. But Herod was never held accountable. The public, people like you and me, never questioned him. When power goes unquestioned and unchecked, it can quickly turn into sin and evil. But, God provides. God always provides. 

We know sin and evil have no place in this world and they will be defeated. It may not look like we imagine or envision, but they will be defeated; the cross taught us that. The cradle, and this fleeing to Egypt should show us that God’s reign shows up first to the most mundane ordinary places. Not to fortresses and halls of power, but to stalls full of animals and caravans of wise men bringing gifts. God also shows up to the most mundane people: shepherds, wise men, an unwed teenager, Joseph (through his dreams), and maybe, if we’re lucky, people like you and me. Evil does not have to remain a force of power in this world. We trust what God will do through Jesus Christ to defeat evil. We also continue to trust that God will provide for us through mundane means: bread, wine, and water. For now, that’s enough. 

Sermon for 12/22/19 Matthew 1:18-25; Advent 4

Take a deep breath. Stay with me. Resist the urge to move forward two days to Christmas Eve or even three days to Christmas day. Stay with me right here and right now still in Advent, still in the season of waiting and anticipation. We don’t have that many days left. Take another deep breath. And now mentally assure yourself that it will all get done. All of the worries that you have that will take up residence in your heart and brain over the next few days, it will all get done. Even if it doesn’t, Christ still comes. But for now, we wait. For the next few moments you can’t do anything and perhaps that’s a gift. Because despite what you heard in the reading, this isn’t actually a birth story, this is an identity story. While we wait, what does it mean to know we wait for, we wait with, and we are surrounded by Emmanuel? Emmanuel, which as we’re told today means “God is with us.”

I want this to be my main focus today. And I’m keeping things short and sweet because the kids are doing such a great job. But when I tell you that God is with us, what does that mean to you personally? I polled the residents of my home and got a few different answers, as you can imagine. But I want you to think about what it means for you personally. What difference does it make in your life. If this is the one for whom we wait, do we still need Emmanuel? Do we still need a God that is with us. Let’s break this down word by word. 

God is with us. This means that within every single one of us there is something divine. We may not always recognize it, thanks to sin. But every one of us holds the image of the divine creator inside each of us. You cannot look into the eyes of someone else and not see God. But what this also means is that those we would rather ignore have some God in them as well. At the same time, we might do well to recognize that we ourselves have a bit of the divine in us. Let us not be so quick to judge ourselves and be so harsh to ourselves. The fact that God is with us means that any power attempting to be with us or walk with us will be defeated. Scripture tells us that nothing comes between us and the love of God (see Romans 8:38-39). Because God is with us we have the ultimate force for defeating the evils of sin and the devil on our side. God is with us. 

God is with us. Notice something about this verb. Now if you didn’t know, I have a degree in English. I use it a lot to stand up here and talk with you week after week. So, words mean a lot to me. The word “is” is an ongoing verb. Meaning that this “is” has no ending. This isn’t God was with us or God will be with us. God is with us. God’s presence has no beginning and no ending. God’s presence is an always thing. There is never a time when we will not be in God’s presence. That, my beloved, is good news. God is with us. 

God is with us. This might be my favorite word of the whole phrase. Maybe. I keep changing my mind. This is the word that talks about relationships. God is dwelling next to us. God is cozied up on the couch, snuggled in for that Netflix marathon. God is in relationship with us. God is our partner. God offers us protection, assurance, and comfort. This relationship can help with loneliness and grief, though God knows it does not disappear forever. God is with us means that we have a perpetual cheerleader. God is with us does not negate the troubles of the world, but it does seem to make them a little easier to handle. God knows we may forget about this relationship. The beauty of the relationship is that God is always there, with a firm grip on us. God is with us. 

God is with us. Notice something here. Scripture doesn’t say that God is with me. God is with I. God is with him. Or God is with her. No, God is with us. See, God created us to be, live, flourish in community. So it makes perfect sense that God would choose to dwell in and among us. God is the thread that ties us all together. Unlike other things we may have in common, this is our strongest bond. We are all bound together in Christ, by Christ, because of Christ because God is with us. Once again, God is with us, all of us. We may not always recognize it. Sin is tricky like that. But we all come to the table. We are all fed. We are all forgiven. And at the foot of the cross we stand on equal ground. God is with us. 

The baby is coming. But we know now that he will be Emmanuel, God is with us. We know the end of the story. We know all the parts in between. Through all of it he will remain God with us, always. We still need to hear this word. We still need to hear this promise. Nothing else in this world can offer us what Emmanuel can: an ongoing, indwelling, relational God that did and will continue to change the world, and us. God is with us.  

Sermon for 12/15/19 Matthew 11:2-11; Advent 3

When I was at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s churchwide assembly (our annual business meeting) in August, I got a wonderful gift. It is “Hear My Voice: A Prison Prayer Book.” I have found it full of resources for many situations, not just for those in prison or jail. When I found this prayer I wondered if John the Baptist might have related to it. It says “O God, you promised that you are with us wherever we go and that there is no place where we can flee from your presence. I claim that promise right here and now. Help me to feel you with me here in solitary. Help me to know that as long as I am yours, there is no place where I am beyond your reach. Remind me that you will never leave me or forsake me. Give me the strength and courage to face this time and to use the quiet to calm my spirit and focus my attention on your grace and care. I pray this in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.” (107)

I really like that last part of the prayer. “Give me the strength and courage to face this time and to use the quiet to calm my spirit and focus my attention on your grace and care.” We meet our friend, John the Baptist once again this week. But his story is much different this time. He is, as you might have assumed or heard, in prison. Placed there by a very overzealous Herod. I hate to ruin the end of the story for you, but John the Baptist will end up with his head on a platter, literally. He was a threat to the empire, much like Jesus and it cost him. And he wants to know, was it all worth it. He asks a very simple question “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” The thing about John’s question is that it’s not one of curiosity, it’s one of desperation. 

Are you the one, Jesus, or are we waiting on someone else? Was what I’ve been through for the sake of spreading your word worth it and for you or is someone else still yet to come and it was all for nothing? In this season of tidings of comfort and joy, I believe that John was looking a little less for joy and more for comfort. He was in prison, after all. John wants to know if Jesus is the real deal. He wants to know if Jesus is the messiah. And, as Jesus is ought to do, he doesn’t give him a straight answer. Because it’s never yes or no with Jesus. Jesus instead tells John that “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Mt 11:5). If I were John, I’d be a little frustrated. Because even though these amazing things are happening John is still in prison. He still waits. 

I know that sometimes the holidays can be challenging. They may not always be merry and bright. “Give me the strength and courage to face this time and to use the quiet to calm my spirit and to focus my attention on your grace and care.” We talk a lot about waiting during Advent. And some of that waiting and anticipation can be good; like Christmas morning kind of good. Like grandma’s special cinnamon rolls kind of good. But then there’s the waiting that turns our focus and attention to God’s grace and care. This is the kind of waiting that requires more comfort than joy.What if you’re waiting to see how Christmas feels without a loved one that has passed on in the last year?  What if you’re waiting for a cure for whatever ails you. What if you’re waiting for the return of a deployed family member? What if you’re waiting for someone who is whole in body to become fuller in mind or spirit? What if you’re waiting for someone to die only because you know it will bring peace? Waiting is not always jolly or full of gleeful anticipation. Sometimes our waiting can leave us in metaphorical prisons. 

We know that Jesus was the one that John was waiting for. Jesus, instead of giving him a straight yes or no answer instead sent proof that he was indeed the one. Part of my call, my beloved, is to help you and me, all of us, remember why we show up here week after week. Part of my call is to be like John the Baptist and point to Christ. This is work we do together. When I am weak, you serve as John the Baptist for me, reminding me of my own baptism, pointing out the ways Christ is moving in my life. We do this together because this is discipleship work. I can’t do this alone. So I ask you this week, when can you remember seeing or feeling, knowing deep in your heart, that sinking down into your bones feeling that you encountered the risen Christ? 

When was it that you were brought comfort? Maybe you were also brought joy, but for sure comfort. When did you know the answer to the question John keeps asking “are you the one?” We need those moments, my beloved. And we need to share them with one another. Because I’ll be honest, it’s hard out there. So many of us are stuck in metaphorical prisons and we need someone from the outside that will come and tell us the good news that it is worth it. That Jesus is the real thing. You are all called to be disciples and that means telling your story of when you encountered Jesus and you had no doubts it was him. Maybe it was a still small moment or maybe it was a bright shining star kind of moment. Maybe you’ve had more than one moment. I encourage you to share this with someone, maybe over coffee or the car ride home. 

It’s been a rough few weeks for me. The details of which I’ll spare you. But the challenges of my mental illness get especially tricky this time of year. What you may not know is that people with brain health issues aren’t sad when we’re depressed, we mainly feel nothing. And who showed up to my prison but my beloved Christopher. He whispered the words of my baptismal promise to me that I am loved and that God loves me and that I am worthy. The abyss seemed less looming in that moment. I knew that Jesus is real because Jesus showed up through Chris. What story will you tell to help free someone from their prison? 

Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, has come into the world and crushed the prison walls around us with his love, grace, and saving actions on the cross.  He didn’t save us with sword or stone but with love unending. This is why Jesus matters: because we cannot save ourselves. Why does Jesus matter? Because without him, we would be incapable of loving ourselves, let alone anyone else.  Why does Jesus matter? Because without him, really, nothing else matters.  

Your prison can no longer keep you.  The one for whom we wait is here in bread and wine.  Taste and see for yourself. Taste and see why Jesus matters. Taste and see that Jesus is the one for whom we wait.   

 

Sermon for 12/8/19 Matthew 3:1-12; Advent 2

I have an idea for a fundraiser for church and I think with just the right amount of help we can pull this thing off in time for Christmas. You know how it is popular this time of year to take your kids to the mall and other places to see Santa? Well, we do the same thing but with a few small changes. So, instead of seeing Santa, the kids, all of us really, get to see John the Baptist. Now, if you want to sit on his lap, that’s up to you. And instead of asking “have you been a good girl or boy” like Santa does, John the Baptist will instead ask everyone “have you been bearing fruit worthy of repentance?” And we’ll set up a little coffee shop in the narthex or downstairs or someplace (I haven’t worked all these details out yet) so people have something to do while they wait to talk with John the Baptist. And the coffee shop will be called (wait for it….) “BREWED of vipers!!” Get it? I think this is a no fail idea and people will be flocking from all around Clinton county to see this. 

I understand that once again, having a reading like this during Advent can seem a little strange. You may be ready for the shepherds, angels, nativity, all of the “classic” Christmas story elements. These apocalyptic end-time stories are getting to be a little too much and are cramping our festive nature, Jesus. But darn it if I don’t love a good John the Baptist story. I love John the Baptist. He loves Jesus. He’s often misunderstood. He’s got great fashion sense. The first thing we hear John the Baptist say is “repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” To repent means to turn outward; to turn away from ourselves and out to the world. To repent means that we turn from our selfish sinful ways and turn towards God’s life-giving grace. I like the fact that the first thing John tells us to do is repent. Because once we repent the rest of his message, honestly, doesn’t sound that scary. 

Repentance isn’t easy. I speak from experience. For me, it’s an ongoing practice. When I say that repentance is turning away from my old sinful self, that sounds easy. But I know from my daily living and my daily dying that repentance is difficult. Sinning isn’t always something I knowingly do, just like many of you. It happens without even thinking about it. That’s part of what makes repentance so difficult. But what also makes repentance difficult is that I must expose myself as the liar and fraud that I am. Oh sure, I put on a good show up here every single Sunday but I struggle with so many of the same things that you do. I fall to sin daily. To admit it means exposing myself. I’m not perfect. I can’t keep it altogether. I struggle. I don’t always trust that God has got my best interest in mind. If I truly live into what repentance means then you would probably hear me confess these things to you week after week and I’m guessing that would get old after a while. But rest assured, my beloved, the office of pastor does not and will never abstain me from the intoxicating allure of falling into sin. Daily. Thanks be to God for grace and forgiveness. 

But John tells us that Jesus is coming. That alone should compel us to confess our sins. As much as I may have joked about being bad or good, repentance isn’t about our moral worthiness. It certainly isn’t about other people’s opinions of us either. Rather, repentance is about “God’s desire to realign us to accord with Christ’s life. Repentance is not so much about our guilt feelings as about God’s power to transform us into Christ’s image” (Feasting on the Word, Burgess 46). Now here’s the thing about repentance: once we start to actively engage in repentance, that is, make it our daily practice, God does this amazing thing. “We will remember and affirm that Christ has brought each of us out of bondage and has fundamentally reoriented our life” (ibid). Repentance frees us. 

Repentance frees us because when we are able to turn from ourselves, when we’re able to turn from being inward, to being outward to the world, we are in a position of vulnerability. We are in a position to no longer make ourselves our only focus, but we start to see God in the world and in others. Repentance is what reminds us that our sins ultimately don’t hold power over us. In our repentance, God will remind us that Christ has “brought each of us out of our bondage and … reoriented our life. Our own wanderings in … life will not be without wilderness hesitancy and resistance, yet God promises to keep pointing the way ahead” (ibid). When we start with repentance, John the Baptist’s message sounds more like a promise than a threat. 

All of these end times don’t have to be scary. Repentance isn’t punishment. Rather, it should be a way of life. In the waters of baptism, Christ claims you. You belong to God. Maybe bearing fruits worthy of repentance just looks like remembering that. On my worst days, I am doing really good to remember that I am called and claimed. On my better days, I repent, look for God in my neighbor, listen for how Christ is calling me to serve others, enter into the wilderness, knowing that I will not be alone, and pray that today I can be a little more like John the Baptist, pointing to Christ and the amazing things he is doing in my life and in the world. We may not always get it right. In fact, we won’t. That’s why we need grace. That’s why we need the meal of Christ’s body and blood as a reminder that nothing comes between us and the love of God. Let us not forget that the time between “joy to the world” and “crucify him” escalates very quickly. It would do us good to remember that repentance and remembering our baptismal promises can help the wilderness feel a little less uncharted and dangerous and more like a place where we’ll meet John the Baptist. Someone we can hope to be like: pointing the way to Christ and furthering God’s kingdom here on earth.  

Sermon for 12/1/19 Matthew 24:36-44; Advent 1

Alright my beloved, I have a confession. This confession is well timed since a good portion of my family is with us today and they can verify that my confession is true. So, here goes. Contrary to what you may believe, I actually don’t know everything. Wait a minute, was there anyone who really did believe this (other than me)?? No, I don’t know everything. In so many ways this is a relief and a burden lifted. It’s also an opportunity, believe it or not, to grow in my faith. After all, if I knew everything, I would have no use for God or faith. I most definitely need God and faith, so it’s a blessing that I don’t know everything. Plus, can you imagine how insufferable I would be if I actually did know everything? How annoying. 

Texts like this one for today can cause a preacher to grimace and run towards the nearest alternative readings. After all, the end times isn’t always the easiest thing to preach about. It has become especially difficult thanks to the ever popular “Left Behind” book series. Combine that with the timing of this text, the first Sunday of Advent and it might leave our brains and hearts wanting for a little more. But much like last week with Christ the King, perhaps this is the perfect text to center ourselves for the arrival of the Christ child. I often let you in on my struggles with the preaching texts because I want you to know that it’s okay to struggle with texts. It’s okay to struggle with the Bible. It’s okay to struggle with God. These struggles are not, I repeat, are NOT a sign of your lack of faith. There seems to be an unspoken assumption that people who have “real faith” or “strong faith” (whatever those two things are) don’t question but instead are very clear on their beliefs and convictions. My beloved, many of my seminary classmates and I joke that we may all have Masters of Divinity degree but we hardly feel like we’ve mastered anything. In fact, seminary may be one of the few educational institutions where it’s good to graduate with more questions than answers. 

Our guilt and shame gets the best of us though, doesn’t it? Troubles arise and we shame ourselves. “I shouldn’t feel this way, I’m a Christian” one might say. Or “I’ve prayed daily, why is this happening to me” someone else might say. And suddenly, just like that, our black and white faith is gray and muddled. But I promise you, uncertainty is a condition of even the best biblical faith. Look at the first verse of our reading today. “But about that day and hour no one knows” (Mt 24:36). No one knows when Christ will return. So all of those Chicken Little, doomsday prepper, end times scary people on television may think they know, but scripture tells us, NO ONE KNOWS. It isn’t a relief to know that Christ doesn’t expect us to know everything?

At the same time, while we are not expected to know everything, we are expected to do something. “The Jesus of the verses before us calls persons to a life of work in a spirit of wakefulness. Work in this sense means activity here and now. Biblical faith as Jesus envisions it is not so concerned with otherworldly matters that it neglects this world’s affairs. Matthew’s Jesus has an eye on what is to come and believes something decisive is going to happen in the future, but he keeps attention focused on the present day and the needs of the hour” (Feasting on the Word, Yurs 25). 

What the writer of the gospel wants the community in Matthew as well as our present community to understand is that watching and waiting for the Lord is important. Yes, we should be prepared. Yes, we should be ready. Yes, we should understand that it can happen at any minute. However, this watching and waiting should not come at the expense of debilitating the rest of our lives or our work. In the examples given, people were carrying on with their normal lives, their normal activities, even their normal celebrations when signs of God’s return happened. 

Matthew’s Gospel is all about the community that has heard the story of Jesus and encouraging them to continue the work of Jesus, all while still being aware and prepared. This is why, at the end of Matthew, we get one of my favorite verses to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” Continue the work of Jesus. Make sure people know the stories. Make sure everyone knows about this savior of the world who was born in a manger, stood with those on the margins, taught, fed, and hung on a cross so that we may all be saved. Friends, there are still those in this world that don’t know this story in its entirety. For some, we may be the only Gospel, the only Jesus they encounter. What story do our lives tell? 

Our time on this earth is limited; I don’t have to tell you that. It is valuable. The best way for us to prepare for the Lord, to watch and wait is to live our lives in a way that points to Christ. When we have more food than we need, we build bigger tables. When our siblings in Christ are hurting, we find ways of helping them, yes, but also fixing the broken systems they may be a part of. I understand that we may not be literally able to heal people like Jesus or feed 5000 people like Jesus. But seeing people’s humanity like Jesus did goes a long way. Looking another human being in the eye and just acknowledging the divine in them is a small way of preparing for the Lord. Because when the Lord comes, it is our hope that you and I will be seated at a banquet table that has no end. And at that banquet table may be a stranger that looks familiar because you’ve seen their divinity. 

Our time on earth is limited but God’s love is not, God’s mercy is not, and thanks be to God, God’s grace is not. We can continue to prepare the way of the Lord by showing others, even just one other person a small glimpse of God’s kingdom here on earth by pointing to Christ. And at the end of the day, we rest assured that we need not know everything. Our works cannot and will not accomplish everything. Hope will come. In the stillness of a silent night the cries of a newborn baby will shatter everything we know about perfection. Hope will come and in the midst of the messy, we find grace.